We began the year with history being made. The January 2017 Special Edition of National Geographic focused upon what it called “Gender Revolution,” but the real history marked with this article may still be to come, and not in a positive way. The news stand version featured 7 people on the cover, only one of which could be considered fitting the gender binary.1 Take a look at them when you visit the market. Take your time. Look at each face. It may be that a few years from now some will no longer be alive.
Is this alarmism or pessimism? I don’t think so and my upbringing in a 1960’s Lutheran environment is one reason why. Another is the time I spent living with Russians in the former Soviet Union. Of course, both require some explanation.
The Sixties seared itself upon the sensitivities of the United States like a branding iron. The Ozzie and Harriett ideal of the Fifties had shifted like an earthquake beginning with President John F. Kennedy and the Civil Rights Movement that he ultimately backed and whose successor President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But amid an escalating Vietnam War, a draft, and other demographics demanding that their rights also be recognized, the social fabric of America ripped apart. The pulpit often reflected this rift.
That era brought little actual exegesis in many churches. Instead, the pulpits could be likened to boxer rings in which a pastor spends his time damning the Communists, Women’s Libbers, draft dodgers, and any other indignation-du-jour that often included youth. Why the youth? Youth were targeted because they could not possibly have known the atrocities the “greatest generation” had known and therefore should not have a voice. Churches often became toxic environments in which hate ruled in the name of Jesus and communion became an internalization of the pastors’ anathemas so that they felt justified in declaring war upon every perceived agent of social change and making attacks a matter of sport.
Lutherans had its checkered history at stake. The same nation that defied the Papacy in favor of the Reformation also became a military state in which enlightenment became eclipsed by the rise of Fascism and Adolf Hitler. A reputedly tolerant and ethical nation turned to holocaust. The Lutheran psyche bristles with resentment at even the suggestion of its failure to stem the tide of German oppression. But it not only failed at stemming the tide of oppression but facilitated exactly that. Its pastors hurled their thunderbolts from pulpits because they naturally didn’t want to see the same thing happen in America and blamed everyone except themselves. Its members exited with scowls and condescension instead of a renewal of joy and love. Its youth sought out it targets, acting out their desire to fulfill their duty to their parents and religion, attacking those they called, “queer” or “faggot” with taunts that turned into actual violence.
But that was then. This is now. Have the kids really grown out of this? Or have they simply sublimated those proclivities to more subtle forms of discrimination till a time may come in which they may freely inflict harm upon those they label as unworthy of their society? The former view is naïve at best. The latter has been demonstrated again and again. Just ask any transperson who has tried to get work or who has been denied basic medical care or run out of the home. Anyone who thinks that American religionists don’t oppress their neighbor has blinded himself to what American religionists are or can potentially become.
I think also about the time I spent with Russians in 1994 when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics became a Commonwealth of Independent States. The people I knew hardly represented an atheistic majority. For that matter, an atheistic majority didn’t appear to exist at all. What I did find manifest in the majority was folk superstition and a hungering for a return to “Holy Russia.” But after the demise of the Soviet Union and the impending economic hardship most would listen to Christian ideas because so many had become disconnected with what “Holy Russia” was all about.
Russians had long considered Moscow to be the “third Rome” that alone survived after the fall of Imperial Rome at the hand of Goths and Constantinople at the hand of Turks. Even now the double-headed eagle of the Byzantines adorns many government emblems in the Kremlin. The double-headed eagle represents the union of church and state.2
That union raised its double head in 2013 when the Duma passed a law 436-0-1forbidding the spread of “non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. The “anti-gay propaganda law” was quickly followed by another law allowing jail sentences of up to three years for “offending religious feelings”, an initiative launched in the wake of the trial against the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot.3
The tide didn’t stop there. The following month another law passed banning adoption by same-sex couples.4
In Siberia also, Deputy of the Legislative Assembly of the Trans-Baikal Parliament, Alexander Mikhailov, announced his intentions to put forward a law allowing marines to whip gay people in public.5
Of course, in the popular Russian mind, little distinguishes transgender people from gay people. To them LGBT people are all “perverts” and popularly described as “pedophiles” and “rapists”. It’s a view that also prevails in backwater America.
Then in 2015 Russia listed sexual minorities to be banned from driving:
“But the most controversial section is the list of sexual preferences and conditions given, including paedophilia, sado-masochism and exhibitionism, as well as “fetishism”, which is described as people who gain sexual arousal from inanimate objects. Transsexuals and transvestites are also on the list, which is drawn from the World Health Organisation’s list of “gender identity disorders” and “disorders of sexual preference.”6
The ruling, which drew international criticism, was quickly played down:
“Health Minister Oleg Salagai explained, however, that people would only be banned if they posed a danger to others on the road, and just having a ‘sexual disorder’ would not mean someone could not drive. However, according to The Moscow Times he said: ‘The varying severity of mental disorders among patients — as well as their need for psychotropic drugs that significantly alter their reactions — make it impossible for [certain people] to drive.’”7
But the heinous nature of these laws had less to do with the laws themselves and much to do with the strengthening of the anti-LGBT undercurrents imposed by the Russian Orthodox and those societal elements who embrace intolerance in its name:
“Their rhetoric, focusing on “traditional family values’ and heteronormative ideas, has grown stronger following Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, when authorities started cultivating a closer political partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church under the leadership of the patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. As the pressure mounts, transgender people are left with limited solutions. The most desperate commit suicide, as in the case of Dasha Shtern, a 22-year-old transgender woman who killed herself after losing her job. Others choose life abroad. ‘They say: I understand that in this country I will never have a life worthy of this name. To solve this, they have to leave. It doesn’t mean that they want to, they just don’t have any other option,’ [Dmitry] Isaev says. Even though statistics on LGBT refugees from Russia are not readily available, gay and transgender Russians seeking asylum abroad are seemingly becoming more common. In November 2014, the Associated Press published a report on gay Russian asylum seekers in New York, and LGBT nonprofits such as RUSA LGBT, a New York–based organization devoted to helping Russian LGBT people, work closely to support people who chose to leave Russia. Baer, who often serves as an expert witness on asylum cases, also confirmed that he has observed an increase in the number of applications.”8
Such rhetoric about “traditional family values,” the ascendancy of church agendas, and legal enforcement thereof have also been advanced in the United States, a place long regarded as a bastion of liberty. But with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, America’s ecclesiastical elements have been flexing their political muscles with a clear agenda to secure both houses of Congress, the White House, and to stack the courts with Conservative judges determined to stamp out abortion, same sex marriage, the voting rights of minorities, and the right for LGBT peoples to exist. Without such courts any laws that may be passed by Congress and signed by the president abridging the rights of anyone likely to vote against them would certainly be struck down as unconstitutional. But the impending constitutional crisis in the United States, the most serious since President Richard Nixon, isn’t the most serious looming threat. The most serious falls within those societal elements emboldened in the last election to carry out social pogroms and to deny recourse against them.
Consider what Russia has become with their anti-gay propaganda law and other laws that followed in just a few of the developments in Russia:
- On the same day as the Komi Republic cancelled a gay pride event, the chair of the local LGBT group, Artem Kalinin, was physically attacked by the leader of a neo-Nazi group in the city of Syktyvkar.
- Unknown assailants attacked a Moscow gay club with a harmful gas.
- a 23-year old gay man from the city of Volgograd was tortured to death in an apparent hate crime, sexually assaulted with beer bottles, and had his skull “smashed with a stone,” his naked and broken body left in the courtyard of an apartment building.
- Occupy Paedophilia, a Right-wing anti-gay organization with at least 37 chapters across Russia tracks down and abducts gay men, torturing and humiliating them, before posting the footage on the internet. Common practice is to humiliate their victims, coercion into an ‘interview’ about the victim’s sexuality, and forcing him to dance. Victims are commonly beaten and drenched in urine in order to humiliate them, but some of the assaults have been much, much worse.
- In 2011, Moscow police arrested and detained a number of prominent gay rights activists including the openly gay US soldier Dan Choi as Russian Neo-Nazis violently attacked marchers at the banned Moscow Pride march near the Kremlin. Peter Tatchell reported: “We witnessed a high level of fraternization and collusion between Neo-Nazis and the Moscow police. I saw neo-Nazis leave and re-enter police buses parked on Tverskaya Street by City Hall.
- Ivan Kharchenko, a Moscow teenager, spent 12 days in the Marshak rehab facility which normally treats drug addictions. He was incarcerated there after his paternal grandmother had sent him to a witch in an attempt to exorcise the ‘spirit of homosexuality’ from him. When that failed, his father committed him to the mental health facility. Ekho Moskovy quoted his father, saying, “I’d rather have you disabled or a vegetable than gay.”
- The state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM) examined which ideas and values united Russians, and which kept them apart. 1,600 Russians from 45 oblasts took part in the poll. One of the major divisions highlighted in the survey were attitudes towards gay people, in which just over half the population answered they would not want to live nearby or work with a gay person “under any circumstances.”
- In 2013 Last year, an anti-gay Russian video claimed 50% of pedophiles are gay and that gay couples only adopt children in order to rape them.
- In the same year, a Russian Orthodox priest named Pavel Adelgeim, was stabbed to death in Pskov after he spoke out in support of the lesbian punk band Pussy Riot and criticized the authority of the Russian Orthodox priesthood. The assailant, who also stabbed himself, was dismissed by authorities as “mentally ill.” 9
Much much more could be said of Russian atrocities against homosexuals. The case of transgender people is much more obscure because they’re much more hidden in the Russian Federation than they are in the West. But it is known from a study conducted by Pravo Trans, at least 50% of the transgender population in Russia are rejected from job positions because of their gender identity. Employers worry that hiring a transgender person could cause issues during inspections, particularly when an employee’s appearance fails to match passport data. The study also found that 62% of trans respondents did not even apply to jobs, 41% avoided seeing a doctor or using public health services and 34% opted out of going to school or university because of fears of discrimination.10
This is Russia today. It’s also what the United States may become once Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) push through the Religious Liberty Defense Act that the President Elect has already indicated he would sign. This bill would sanction open discrimination by anyone claiming they are following a divine command to do so.11
Every transperson knows well how discriminatory, even hateful religious institutions often are. But today’s Trumpism features the rise of the so-called Alt-Right, a Neo-Nazi element that has married itself to the Ku Klux Klan who violently opposes transgender people.
The election of Donald Trump has already emboldened such people to vandalize the property of LGBT peoples and to threaten economic, political, and physical harm. The passage of Senator Cruz’s bill can only facilitate what Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law did: state-backed religious and Right-wing pogroms against hated minorities including transpeople.
This is the looming threat we face: the further rise of organizations comparable to Russia’s Occupy Paedophilia who attack LGBT peoples for sport and brazenly display their atrocities for the world to see as if it their acts of hate are somehow honorable while both church and state do nothing to help, but blame the victims. With stacked courts, the infrastructure for redressing atrocities is curtailed while religious leaders look the other way and pretend that nobody is being oppressed; all while hiding behind slogans that claim America is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
But anyone who truly thinks will know how deceptive this really is, and America, if it will continue to be the bastion of virtue that it claims to be, will turn and oppose those religio-political elements of its society that facilitate and back the violent. The real question for America becomes, “Are you for real, or are you just a nation of sell-outs?” It’s a question that might as well be answered by the dead… and if those on the cover of this month’s National Geographic live to ask it, would prove to be braver than the ones who back America’s impending pogroms.
- Leutwyler, Henry. National Geographic (cover photo) (January 2017) Volume 231, National Geographic Society.
- (n.a.) The Double Headed Eagle (n.d.) Web: George Greek Orthodox Website: http://www.stgeorge-newportrichey.org/Flags_and_Symbols/Church_Flags_Symbols.htm. Retrieved January 4, 2016.
- Elder, Miriam. Russia passes law banning gay ‘propaganda’ (June 11, 2013) Web: The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/11/russia-law-banning-gay-propaganda. Retrieved January 3, 2017.
- Day, Aaron. The 25 most shocking anti-gay stories from Russia so far (February 7, 2014) Web: Pink News: http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2014/02/07/the-25-most-shocking-anti-gay-stories-from-russia-so-far/ . Retrieved January 3, 2017.
- Walker, Shawn. Transgender people in Russia banned from driving, says legal amendment (January 9, 2015) Web: The Guardian: 2017.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/09/transgender-people-russia-banned-driving-legal-amendment-dmitry-medvedev. Retrieved January 3, 2017.
- Payton, Naith. Russia NOT banning trans people from driving (January 14, 2015) Web: Pink News: http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2015/01/14/russia-not-banning-trans-people-from-driving/. Retrieved January 3, 2017.
- Parogni, Ilaria. Transgender Russians Struggle to Take Their Movement Out of the Shadows (February 3, 2016) Web: The Nation: https://www.thenation.com/article/transgender-russians-struggle-to-take-their-movement-out-of-the-shadows/. Retrieved January 3, 2017.
- Day, Aaron article.
- Beresford, Mika. 50% of transgender people face job rejection in Russia (November 20, 2016) Web: Pink News: http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/11/20/50-of-transgender-people-face-job-rejection-in-russia/. Retrieved January 3, 2017.
- O’Hara, Emily Mary. First Amendment Defense Act Would Be ‘Devastating’ for LGBTQ Americans (December 21, 2016) Web: NBC News: http://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/first-amendment-defense-act-would-be-devastating-lgbtq-americans-n698416. Retrieved January 4, 2016.